By Terry Wanzek: Jamestown, North Dakota
The "heads" side of every quarter pictures a famous farmer: George Washington. Among the 50 states represented on the "tails" side, however, only Vermont shows a farmer: He’s tapping maple trees for syrup.
So it would be a special shame if Vermont’s legislators were to pass a bill that would hurt farmers not just in the Green Mountain State, but across America.
The bill would require all food that possibly contains genetically modified (GM) ingredients to say so on a special label.
If this sounds reasonable on the surface, consider a few details: Just about everything we eat derives in some way from biotechnology (which is a good thing), the public isn’t exactly clamoring for this bill, and supporters of the proposal are driven primarily by greed and cynicism.
Thankfully, the bill is now stuck in a committee and many observers think it will stay there, failing to become a law before the state’s general assembly finishes its work this year. But I’ve spent a fair bit of time around state capitols (I’m both a family farmer and a State Senator in North Dakota), and I’ve seen a lot happen in the last days of a session.
So farmers need to keep an eye on what happens in Montpelier.
The fundamental flaw in Vermont’s bill is that nobody needs it. It’s a solution in search of a problem.
Biotechnology is an accepted tool of conventional agriculture. Around the world, farmers have grown more than 3 billion acres of GM crops--that is, plants bred to have a natural resistance to insects and weeds, resulting in a bountiful and sustainable food ingredient.
In the United States, the vast majority of corn and soybeans are genetically enhanced. Farmers are able to grow more food on less land, boosting our national food security and helping us conserve wilderness at the same time. Most Americans eat food derived from biotechnology every day.
Biotechnology is a process. The food it produces is no different nutritionally from other kinds of food. Demanding special labels for GM ingredients makes about as much sense as requiring labels that explain whether crops were harvested by modern machinery or by hand.
Consumers expect their food labels to carry pertinent facts rather than needless and confusing data. As a farmer and consumer, I want them to have that information. As a society, we already suffer from information overload, with documents thrust upon us again and again. When was the last time you read the HIPAA statement at your pharmacy?
But here’s the best reason to question the type of information some argue must be mandated on labels: The special-interest groups behind them aren’t interested in helping out the public. Instead, they want to use government regulations to exploit consumer uncertainties and create a competitive advantage for personal profit.
They’d love nothing more than labels that reproduce biohazard symbols on perfectly healthy food.
Many of the biggest backers of rules like the one proposed in Vermont are organic-food groups that think people will flock to their products, which, by the way, are generally more expensive (but not healthier).
Joseph Mercola, a prominent funder of a labeling initiative in California, recently explained his thinking: "Personally, I believe GM foods must be banned entirely, but labeling is the most efficient way to achieve this. Since 85 percent of the public will refuse to buy foods they know to be genetically modified, this will effectively eliminate them from the market just the way it was done in Europe."
As motives go, this one is pretty bad: Use labels to frighten, rather than to inform, people about what they eat and drive them, like cattle, toward different consumer items.
Vermont’s actions will carry national weight, perhaps by encouraging politicians and activists elsewhere to follow its example and forcing food companies to meet a patchwork of inconsistent and unnecessary regulations that drive up the cost of food without increasing our food safety. A real food safety issue, in my mind, would be a lack of food, as a result of eliminating a farmer’s access to the latest technologies that have dramatically enhanced our abilities to safely increase food production.
I hope the lawmakers of Vermont will remember their state quarter--and decide to stand with the men and women around the country who grow the food we depend on.
Terry Wanzek is a wheat, corn and soybean farmer in North Dakota. He serves as a ND State Senator and volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).